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Conference 2005

The European Conference on Sex Work, Human Rights, Labour and Migration

(Taken from the SEX WORKERS’ RIGHTS: Report of the European Conference on Sex Work, Human Rights, Labour and Migration, Brussels (2005)

Beginning in 2002 a small network of Dutch sex workers and activists gathered in Amsterdam to organise a conference that would give sex workers an opportunity to respond to the proliferation of repressive new legislation and policies being enacted throughout Europe. In 2003 the group, Sex-work Initiative Group Netherlands (SIGN), approached sex workers and allies across Europe and invited them to join an organising commit tee which would raise funds and host a European conference on sex workers' rights. (Allies are people and organisations who—although not sex workers—work in fields of importance to sex workers, such as labour, migration, human rights and health.)

The response was enthusiastic. The committee  registered a foundation—the International Committee for the Rights of Sex Workers in Europe—a necessary formality that enabled the group to take on the legal responsibilities associated with organising such an event. In January 2004 the committee met for the first time, in Amsterdam.

The Organising Committee (OC) consisted of 15members from several European countries, including female and male sex workers; migrant sex workers; former sex workers; and some people who  had never been sex workers. In order to keep the working committee a manageable size, the committee did not attempt to represent every country in Europe.

In preparation for the conference, the OC met several times, and subcommittees met more fre- quently. Conference supporters were sent e-mails; postings were sent to various e-mail listserves, and a conference website was created to promote the event. The OC's finance group raised nearly €220,000 for the event.

The purpose of this conference was established: develop a set of tools which could be used by sex workers to defend and extend their human, labour and migrant rights at home. These tools would include a manifesto—a list of demands for rights to which sex workers should be entitled; a declaration of rights already defined under existing international agreements and treaties; and a list of recommendations determined by delegates while at the conference.

The OC struck two working groups to draft a man- ifesto and a declaration. The Manifesto Working Group compiled a list of headings (with examples from existing sex worker manifestos) and sent it to a list of supporters — organisations, sex workers and allies —who were asked to provide their own statements to be compiled into a draft mani- festo for the conference.

The Declaration Working Group set out three  questions which were sent to supporters to answer:

  • What experiences have you had where your workers' rights have been violated?
  • What rights do you see as most important?
  • How could countries fulfil their legal obliga- tions to ensure sex workers their rights?

The six-month consultation process collected 42 responses (including both individual responses and collective input from groups of sex workers and sex-work projects). Once responses to these questions were collected, the draft documents were circulated amongst OC members for feedback, and volunteers translated them into 13 languages.

Well-known human rights experts were ap- proached for help with the Declaration. Notably, the advice and assistance of Alice Miller (USA), Shivan Scanlan (Poland) and Jyoti Sanghera (Switzerland) proved indispensible.

Six months before the conference, the OC sent out an open call for applications from any wish- ing to attend. All sex workers who applied from European countries were accepted, as well as a few sex workers with special skills from outside of Europe. Applicants were encouraged to suggest possible workshop topics, submit plenary propos- als, facilitate workshops, or contribute in some other way. Certain allies were specifically invited to participate in conference sessions because of their expertise in human rights, labour rights or migrants' rights.

The OC had difficulty finding sex workers and allies from countries in southeast Europe, either due to a lack of sex worker support organisations, or because of the difficulties posed by international travel.

On October 15 -17, 2005, delegates from across Europe convened to polish and endorse a sex workers' manifesto listing demands agreed upon by sex workers living and working throughout Europe, and a declaration of the rights to which sex workers in Europe are entitled under international law. This report documents the three-day event which resulted in this historic achievement.

Celebration, Connection and Challenge


The sex workers' rights movement in Europe has much to celebrate, including a wealth of knowledge, research, materials, dedication and talent. Many activists have been committed to defending and promoting equal rights for sex workers for 20 years or more. Sex workers in Europe have a rich culture and history, and this legacy shone in Brussels. A large area near the plenary room displayed an impressive collection of art and educational materials. There were books, cards and pamphlets—as well as drier documents like annual reports, legal briefs and research papers—in Dutch, English, Finnish, French, German, Italian, Polish, Russian and Spanish.

There were beautiful works of art, produced by sex workers: lush photos, collages and books, which cleverly addressed some of the personal aspects of sex work. A fantastic video booth ran for the duration of the conference. Sexyshock (a women's sex shop collective from Italy) and Carol Leigh (a.k.a. Scarlot Harlot), from San Francisco set up the booth, which offered delegates the opportunity to record their opinions and feelings on video. Sexyshock has distilled and produced an artistic video; a piece of prostitutes' history, included with this report.

The celebration culminated in a superb party expertly organised by Marjan Sax. A sumptuous buffet and exceptional live adult entertainment made for a fun venue for delegates to unwind. Sex workers and allies had come together from the corners of Europe and beyond to celebrate our accomplishments, our friendships and our dreams for the future—and that's exactly what we did.


One of the main objectives of this conference was to initiate and foster a network of sex workers and allies throughout Europe. Conference materials and documents as well as a translation service were made available in five languages: English, French, German, Spanish and Russian. In addition, volunteers offered translations in several other languages.

Bringing sex workers and allies together allowed participants to share their experiences and form connections that crossed borders and language barriers. The conference provided a rare oppor- tunity to make the initial contacts needed to lay the foundation for a strong, expansive network.
Such a network could document and track re- pressive legislation and policies regarding pros- titution, migration and human trafficking, and their harmful effects on those who work in the sex industry. This network could also provide a mechanism for collective organising and lobbying for sex workers' rights.


The third major purpose of the conference was to collectively produce tools sex workers and their allies could use to secure and defend human and labour rights for sex workers at home.

The Declaration of the Rights of Sex Workers in Europe is based on international treaties signed by governments across Europe, and it outlines all the rights everyone should be entitled to under inter- national law. It also highlights human rights abuses against sex workers across Europe. The assistance provided by our allies who work in human rights organisations (in particular, Alice Miller, University of Columbia; Jyoti Sanghera, Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights; and Shivan Scanlan, Senior Advisor on Anti-Trafficking Issues Human Rights Dept., Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe) was crucial to the creation of this legal document. Your many hours of volunteer labour deserve a special mention, and we thank you.

The Sex Workers in Europe Manifesto demands changes that would address European society's unequal treatment of sex workers. Conference participants split up into three working groups; each group undertook to examine, discuss and make changes to one-third of the Manifesto.

Participants then reconvened, and—following more discussion and debate—voted to endorse the Declaration and the Manifesto.

On the final day, conference delegates gathered at the European Parliament and officially present- ed these documents, which, for the first time ever, truly represented their collective voice.

Now, those who participated in this political event have tangible results: documents we can use as tools in our efforts to establish the recognition of sex workers' rights in our own countries.

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